Church sexual abuse: French priest Preynat admits 'caressing' boys

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Bernard Preynat, a former priest accused on sexual assault, waits the beginning of his trial, 13 January 2020Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Bernard Preynat has admitted sexually assaulting minors while in charge of a scout camp

A former French priest accused of sexually abusing dozens of Boy Scouts has admitted "caressing" children in ways he knew were wrong, at the beginning of his trial in France.

"It could be four or five children a week," Bernard Preynat, 74, told the court in Lyon on Tuesday.

He is accused of assaulting at least 80 young boys in the 1980s and 1990s and faces ten years in prison if convicted.

Ten of his accusers are expected to give evidence in the four-day trial.

The men were all aged between seven and 15 at the time of the alleged abuse.

This is the first time that Mr Preynat has appeared in a French court to answer questions about these allegations.

What happened at the court?

Speaking on the first day of his trial, Mr Preynat said he did not initially see his actions as "committing sexual assault, but giving caresses... hugs".

He admitted to the court, however, that the interactions - which frequently occurred at a scout camp he organised at weekends - "did bring me sexual pleasure".

He said he only fully understood his actions were illegal following "the accusations of the victims".

His trial was scheduled to start on Monday, but was postponed for 24 hours at the request of lawyers who wanted to participate in a protest against President Emmanuel Macron's proposed pension reforms.

Also linked to the case is Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who was found guilty last March of failing to report the allegations against Mr Preynat.

Cardinal Barbarin is the highest-profile cleric within the Catholic Church in France to face trial over the child sexual abuse scandal.

What are the charges against the priest?

Bernard Preynat is charged with sexually assaulting Boy Scouts between 1971 and 1991, when he served as scout chaplain in the Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon region of eastern France.

Dozens of men say he sexually assaulted them as children. In their previous accounts, they alleged that Mr Preynat repeatedly touched them inappropriately and occasionally kissed them on the lips.

Mr Preynat has previously admitted abusing boys over two decades, but some of his alleged victims have also accused church authorities of covering up allegations when they were first reported, allowing him to remain in contact with children.

Appearing briefly at the court in Lyon on Monday, Mr Preynat said he was aware of the suffering he had already caused, and that he wanted the trial to "take place as quickly as possible".

Last July, Mr Preynat was defrocked - stripped of his clerical status - after a church tribunal ruled he had committed "criminal acts of sexual character against minors under [the age of] 16".

His lawyer earlier said that despite his client's confession, the statute of limitations relating to any charges had expired, which precluded his prosecution.

But officials argued that some offences could still be prosecuted and a criminal case was opened.

What about the alleged cover-up?

Cardinal Barbarin, who was the archbishop of Lyon and France's most senior Roman Catholic cleric before he stepped aside last year, was found guilty of failing to report allegations of sexual abuse to authorities after confronting Mr Preynat about rumours as far back as 2010.

He was handed a six-month suspended prison sentence in March 2019, but appealed the verdict.

After his offer to resign was rejected at the time by Pope Francis on "the presumption of innocence", Cardinal Barbarin said he would stand aside "for a while" pending his appeal.

Image source, Getty Images
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Cardinal Barbarin (wearing a black cap) has appealed his six-month suspended sentence

Cardinal Barbarin admitted he had known of "rumours" as far back as 2010, but that he only became aware of the alleged abuse after a conversation with one of the victims in 2014.

He later informed the Vatican of the allegations, and removed Mr Preynat from his position - but never informed police.

The allegations then became public in 2015.

During his trial last March, he told the court: "I cannot see what I am guilty of. I never tried to hide, let alone cover up these horrible facts."

The result of his appeal is scheduled for 30 January.

Other Vatican officials are accused of failing to report abuse allegations to the police, including Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, who will not appear at the trial because he has immunity under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome.

The abuse scandal in France became the subject of the film By the Grace of God, which was cleared for release in the country last February following a legal challenge by Mr Preynat's lawyers, who argued it could prejudice the trial.

More on the Church sexual abuse scandal:

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Brigitte, a survivor of child sex abuse by a chaplain, tells her story